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Can the Ravens avoid the same fate they suffered a year ago?

Are the Ravens on the verge of a repeat of their 2021 meltdown?

369 days ago, the Baltimore Ravens lost in Pittsburgh after attempting a two-point conversion with 12 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. They trailed the Steelers by a point at the time. The Ravens drove 60 yards and Lamar Jackson connected with Sammy Watkins on a game-tying six yard touchdown pass that could’ve forced overtime.

Instead, John Harbaugh opted to go for two, failing to convert and losing the first of six consecutive games to end Baltimore’s season. Baltimore entered the game against Pittsburgh at 8-3 holding the AFC’s top seed. After failing to win in their final six games, they fell to 8-9 and missed the postseason for the first time since 2017. Pittsburgh started Baltimore’s losing streak and ended it in overtime of Week 18, defeating the Ravens 16-13 — their fourth straight victory in the AFC North rivalry.

One year later, things aren’t so different. The Ravens will travel to Pittsburgh to face the Steelers for the first time in 2022. They’re 8-4 and in the thick of the AFC playoff picture. Jackson, just like in 2021, is unavailable and may be for one game or a month. Again, the injuries have piled up. The Ravens big ticket acquisition this offseason, Marcus Williams, has missed over two months with a dislocated wrist. Ronnie Stanley has missed time. Rashod Bateman is out for the season. Again, their top two running backs, Gus Edwards and J.K. Dobbins, have missed substantial time. Baltimore is relying on DeSean Jackson to make plays a year after they relied on Watkins to do the same.

Defensively, however, Baltimore is much in a much better place in terms of health, although they’ve struggled to put games away. Most recently was their meltdown in Week 12, allowing the Jacksonville Jaguars to escape a 3rd-&-21, driving 86 yards to score a touchdown and convert a two-point attempt to win the game. Baltimore’s defense has been outstanding outside of the fourth quarter and end of the first half, where opponents have scored a league high nine points per game against the Ravens. They’ve allowed opponents to score inside two minutes before the end of the first half in 7/12 games this season.

With backup quarterback Tyler Huntley attempting to keep the Ravens afloat until Jackson hopefully returns, these points are crucial and force a razor-thin margin for error in the second half considering how anemic Baltimore’s offense has been.

Over their last three games Baltimore’s offense ranks No. 22 in offensive DVOA according to Football Outsiders. Their red zone struggles are thick and exhausting, converting only four of 10 times in that stretch. Their last red zone trip was their most fruitful in over a month, where Huntley scored a go-ahead touchdown with less than a minute left and the Ravens narrowly escaped an embarrassing defeat against the Denver Broncos. That game felt all too familiar to a win Baltimore had late in 2021, narrowly escaping the jaws of defeat by the hands of Andy Dalton and the Chicago Bears in Week 11 of 2021. The Ravens, despite coming off of their bye week to face the squandering Carolina Panthers, Jaguars and Broncos, who wield a combined record of 11-25, have been in dog fights against all three teams down to the final minutes of the fourth quarter.

Heading into Pittsburgh, who has won three of their last four, the Ravens are at a crossroads. After scratching and clawing their way to 8-4, will they allow an uninspiring Steelers team to unravel them yet again? Baltimore will rely heavily on their top ranked defense. Outside of the final drive against the Jaguars, the Ravens defense has stifled opponents since acquiring star inside linebacker Roquan Smith at the trade deadline.

The Ravens’ defense ranks third in defensive DVOA since acquiring Smith, leading the NFL with a DVOA of -48.7 against the run in that time. There will be an old school, AFC North, Steelers vs. Ravens war of attrition on the ground Sunday. Over Pittsburgh’s 3-1 streak, they rank second in offensive rushing DVOA. They’ve been fueled by 2021 first-round pick Najee Harris, who has run for 310 yards, three touchdowns and forced 15 missed tackles in that time, according to PFF.

There are excuses. Again, the Ravens could be without their top wide receiver and safety, top two running backs, right guard and quarterback. However, the Ravens have preached their philosophy of being a deep and ready team that can rise to the occasion. To their credit, they gave the Steelers a run for their money in 2020 with over 20 players missing the Wednesday matinee affair due to COVID-19 running rampant through their locker room. If there were a game for Baltimore’s depth and “next man up” mentality to drive them to victory, this would be the game.

This has been Harbaugh’s mantra for over a decade. However, if they fail to defeat their rival in December with their season in the balance for the third consecutive time, it’s a message that will feel flat and difficult to buy into, particularly by losing to a team trotting out a rookie quarterback in Pickett.

While there’s a ton of football left to be played, 9-4 heading down the stretch feels a world away from 8-5. At 9-4, the Ravens will still control their own destiny and be 3-0 in their division with four games left to play, including three against AFC North opponents. The Cincinnati Bengals are arguably the hottest team in the NFL after defeating the Kansas City Chiefs for the third straight time. The Bengals are 8-2 since opening the season with back-to-back losses, yet are currently 1-3 in the division, with the Ravens currently holding their head-to-head tiebreaker.

The Bengals, as things stand, are a better team. For Baltimore to move to 3-0 in the division will be paramount in giving them a better record in the AFC North, which will be the tiebreaker if Cincinnati defeats Baltimore in their Week 18 regular season finale. If Baltimore beats Pittsburgh Sunday, it will force the Bengals to have to win out against the AFC North in all likelihood. With a Ravens loss, the Bengals can move into sole possession of first place.

Harbaugh is staring down the barrel of nearly identical circumstances to this time last year. After his Ravens produced the most disappointing regular season finish in team history, how will Harbaugh rally the troops? Allowing the rival Steelers to win a series-record fifth straight game, three of which coming in December, is an unacceptable outcome. Not only is it unacceptable, it’s an abject failure to the philosophy that he’s preached for the better part of two decades. His mantra’s — “next man up”, “GOOD!”, and “whose got it better than us!?” will ring tired, stale and drawing closer to Russell Wilson’s “Broncos Country, let’s ride!” than to the rallying cries of winners.

Excuses are plentiful, but it’s time for Harbaugh to right this ship and navigate his team to a clean game. Penalties, turnovers and late clock management or over-aggressive decisions can’t decide this game for a team that can put up an honest fight through the prism of their own ideals. Last year was supposed to be a fluke. Baltimore prides themselves in the identity of a smart, consistent organization that wins. That type of team doesn’t lose five straight to their rival and squander the opportunity to learn from their past mistakes.

The Ravens preach that this is the type of situation and game that they’ve built themselves for. It’s time to prove it, or it could be time to press the red button in Baltimore.